Pokémon Legends: Arceus represents the first major shake-up of the Pokémon franchise since its inception. Fans have been calling for an open world Pokémon game for years, but Game Freak has been careful to point out that Legends: Arceus is not a mainline game in order to curb expectations. Experimentation is great to offer innovation from older franchises, but is open world really the design element that Pokémon needs to appease fans?
While the sales numbers of Pokémon games reveal that Gamefreak and The Pokémon Company have absolutely nothing to fear, dissent has been growing among fans, increasing with every generation. A commonly cited issue is with the easy difficulty of the games, how much they hold players’ hands, and the constant introduction and abandonment of gimmicks. Pokémon Sword and Shield bore the brunt of these criticisms when it was announced that not every Pokémon would be available within the game, and when graphics and animations did not meet what fans expected from a Switch game.
Pokémon is a children’s game, but it always has been. The games have gotten easier since the original generation 1 releases, forced Exp Share in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl being a good example of this. Despite this, something about Pokémon kept children of the 90s addicted long after they had outgrown most other experiences of their youth. There is nostalgia, but Pokémon manages to transcend this, with Pokémon cards making a huge resurgence, and Nuzlocke runs being a popular playthrough on streams and Youtube. Is there a way to reconcile The Pokémon Company’s target audience for the brand and games being children, and the ever aging audience craving a more engaging experience?
Even in the early days, difficulty wasn’t what drew people to Pokémon. The games tap into the human brain’s love of collection and cute animals. The perceived difficulty of needing to level up Pokémon one by one through excessive grinding wasn’t in itself what engaged with players, but in forcing them to spend individual time with each pocket monster to grow and evolve them. This time created the bond between trainer and Pokémon that the game preaches so much about. Time had to be spent with a Pokémon to progress, whereas in newer games it is increasingly faster to level and evolve your team. Nuzlocke challenges play into this by making Pokémon vulnerable, one of a kind companions, that will be lost forever after a mistake. This gives the player a bond with their Pokémon, and in turn increases their engagement with the game, and not necessarily because the challenge makes the game harder.
Introducing more Pokémon isn’t always a good thing. While every Pokémon is somebody’s favourite, a player can ultimately only have a team of six lovable companions. At a current number of 898 Pokémon in existence, that is 892 Pokémon that a player will mostly ignore. When every Pokémon has a set typing and a range of stats, at some point different Pokémon become redundant. The newer regional variants have helped add exciting new variety to older Pokémon, and shinies have always been a cool alternative look. Different moods also help provide personality and variety to Pokémon of the same species. Two players can use a Meowth and both feel like theirs is different from the other.
Scope and scale is not what Pokémon games need. They can be cool additions, but it is ultimately the bond between players and the Pokémon that generates so much love for the franchise. Players need time with their Pokémon, and need to feel like their team of choice is unique and filled with personality. Winning a gym without trying offers little sense of achievement, but overcoming adversity with a friend you’ve travelled alongside down difficult paths is something that resonates with everyone’s inner child.
By Matthew Roys